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Many wealthy countries have vaccinated more than half of their populations. In Africa, just 5% of people have gotten the full dose. Advocates for greater access say a major reason is that African nations have to rely on manufacturers on other continents, where they have little clout. Now a pharmaceutical startup in South Africa has been enlisted in an effort to change that. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: The company is called Afrigen Biologics & Vaccines. And until recently, it specialized in developing veterinary shots using fairly traditional methods. But these days, Afrigen's Cape Town lab is a hive of research into the cutting-edge technology behind mRNA vaccines.
PETRO TERBLANCHE: So you will see scientists in white coats...
AIZENMAN: Petro Terblanche is Afrigen's managing director.
TERBLANCHE: ...And some with full-suit personal protective equipment operating a bioreactor to make the actual DNA. You will see microbiology, clean rooms where testing is taking place.
AIZENMAN: Because the World Health Organization recently tasked Afrigen with a mission - figure out how to make an an mRNA vaccine against COVID that is as close as possible to the version produced by Moderna.
TERBLANCHE: That's the blueprint or the gold standard.
AIZENMAN: Then, once Afrigen has sorted out all the complicated steps to make Moderna's shot on an industrial scale, the WHO will pay Afrigen to become a teaching center. Martin Friede is the WHO official in charge of this effort.
MARTIN FRIEDE: Manufacturers from around the world will be invited to come and learn the entire process. So this will accelerate the availability of the technology, not to one manufacturer, but to many manufacturers.
AIZENMAN: The project budget is about $100 million. Friede says it makes sense to stand up more manufacturers of mRNA vaccines in particular because the technology appears so effective against COVID and shows promise against diseases like malaria. As to why the WHO has chosen to try to copy Moderna rather than the other mRNA COVID vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech...
FRIEDE: Moderna has reiterated on several occasions that they will not enforce their intellectual property during the pandemic.
AIZENMAN: ...A manufacturer probably won't face a lawsuit for producing a vaccine that's virtually identical to Moderna's. Also, says Friede, compared to Pfizer's vaccine, there's a lot more information in the public domain about how Moderna's vaccine is made. But Afrigen's Petro Terblanche says there are still a lot of unknowns. Take Moderna's patent.
TERBLANCHE: It's written very carefully and cleverly to not disclose absolutely everything.
AIZENMAN: So while Afrigen knows most of the specialized ingredients that are needed...
TERBLANCHE: What we don't know is exact concentrations. And we don't know some of the mixing times, some of the conditions of mixing and formulating.
AIZENMAN: Moderna is facing growing pressure to share this knowhow, including from some U.S. Congress members who note that the company got at least $1 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds to help it develop its COVID vaccine. When asked for comment, Moderna referred NPR to a previous press release, stating that the company is committed to protecting as many people as possible and noting that Moderna plans to build its own plant in Africa - location TBD. Pfizer-BioNTech has made a similar announcement.
Friede of the World Health Organization says this type of plant would have limited impact because it won't be a teaching center.
FRIEDE: But also - this is very important - we need to make sure that it is owned by the Africans and that the Africans are empowered.
AIZENMAN: Otherwise, what's the guarantee the doses wouldn't be shipped to the U.S. or Europe? Still, Friede says the WHO is talking to Moderna, and he remains hopeful the company will agree to provide some kind of tech transfer. If so, it would cut the time it would take to get a manufacturer pumping out doses from three or four years down to about two.
FRIEDE: Half the time period.
AIZENMAN: But even that could be too late. Rasmus Bech Hansen is CEO of Airfinity, an independent, London-based analytics company. He projects that by next year, existing plants will already be providing more than enough COVID vaccines for the world. Hansen says this doesn't mean it's pointless to facilitate this kind of mRNA vaccine production. But...
RASMUS BECH HANSEN: We should think about these regional initiatives more as preparation for the next pandemic.
AIZENMAN: So he says, they will definitely serve a purpose.
Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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